Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ruthless Rebels Send Donegal Packing

Much of the pre-match talk this week centred on how much Donegal would put into winning this league semi final fixture - would it be beneficial to go all the way to a league final only five weeks out from championship Sunday on May 17th? For long spells at Headquarters, Rory’s troops played some sumptuous attacking football and looked as if they meant business. However, once Cork realised that the back door protecting the Donegal defence had been left ajar and was missing its normal padlock, they put this game to bed.

Usually, a forward line as potent and as talented as Brian Hurley and Colm O’Neill would not be given anywhere near as much space as they got today but in a very open game, lacking any sort of intensity, they were afforded free rein.

The full back line had very little protection throughout the match, the McGee brothers and Paddy McGrath having trouble dealing with their direct opponents. It was strange to see a team cut through Donegal’s centre on so many occasions; regardless of the importance or otherwise attached to the game, conceding four goals is worrying - you can be sure Tyrone will see no such room in five weeks time.

Michael Murphy returned to the team after watching from the stand in MacHale Park seven days ago. The break didn’t do the maestro any harm as he posted a wonderful 0-8 comprised of three frees, two 45s and three points from play.

Michael’s return meant all three of the team’s danger men started and it was interesting to see Colm McFadden playing the deeper of the trio with the captain and Patrick McBrearty staying inside for much of the day. It’s a role that means a lot of work and effort but will be a big help in bringing McFadden’s fitness and match sharpness to where it needs to be. The Creeslough sharpshooter is still a long way short of his peak scoring form, a number of wides and a missed goal chance in the first half evidence of this. Two fine long range points though showed what he is capable of and they will have helped his confidence and no doubt he will be busting a gut over the coming weeks to try to secure a starting spot for the championship opener.

It was a disappointing week for the U21 contingent in the squad following their defeat against Tyrone on Wednesday night. Three of those lads started today – the McHughs, Ryan and Eoin, along with Hugh McFadden.

McFadden put in a big shift around the middle and has become a vital cog in Donegal’s turnover ploys. He twice won the ball back for his side early in the second half, the first from a block down at midfield which eventually led to a point from Murphy and the other a tackle that sent a Corkman over the line and gave Donegal a sideline kick.

Competition for starting places is fierce at present and it may well be that we won’t see both McFaddens in the line up in Ballybofey next month but Hugh has given himself a great chance to get a jersey.

Eoin McHugh got his first senior start at Croke Park and similar to his cousin Ryan two years ago he looks very nimble and light but has bags of ability. There is some bulking up to go through before he’ll fully settle in at senior level but even this summer he could be an effective weapon in Donegal’s arsenal.

While Donegal’s defence wasn’t what it normally is today, the forward unit can take a lot of positives from their exploits. Nineteen points is a great tally to post and will win most matches. The shooting was accurate, the interchange slick and the kick passing in particular into the full forward line was of the highest standard. Rory was of course a brilliant forward in his day and it’s clear he is having an effect in this regard on the training field.

Despite the massed defences of nowadays, a precise kick pass can still give a forward a chance to collect, turn and shoot in one movement and it is very hard to defend against. We saw examples of such passes today from Karl Lacey and Odhran MacNiallais while in the second game Conor McManus ran riot for Monaghan on such ball.

In contrast Cork, despite winning an All-Ireland in 2010, have taken quite a bit of criticism over the years over their hesitancy in getting ball into their myriad of deadly score-getters. Many of their attacks traditionally involved lateral hand passing and so many of their players were fond of soloing laboriously up the field even when passes were on. There has been a big improvement since Brian Cuthbert has taken the reins and much of their good play today came from direct ball carrying. They still though need to add a longer dimension to their game plan. Donegal didn’t play with an out and out sweeper today and there were times where McGrath and one of the McGees were two on two against Hurley and O’Neill – in this situation the ball must go in. Donegal carry the ball quite a bit and always have done but when they sense an opening inside the ball is delivered.

The absence of Neil Gallagher was acutely felt last week in Castlebar with Mayo’s Barry Moran enjoying a free run of the park and lording the middle third. With Gallagher again missing today, it was the turn of Fintan Goold to put in a big scoring performance from midfield; the Marcoom native finishing with 0-4 to his name.

On each occasion that Donegal looked to be getting back into the game and had a chance to reel in the Rebels, they conceded another major and the gap always remained. Goals have never been as important as they are these days; they’re much harder to get and are precious commodities in big games. Last year’s All-Ireland semi final and final involving Donegal are a case in point, so too the last few meetings between today’s other semi-finalists. In the quarter final meeting in August, Monaghan were well in the game until Bernard Brogan raised a green flag but after that they fell away. They conceded early again in last week’s meeting in Clones but today there was no goal concession and the Farney men were unlucky to lose by the minimum after a great display. Giving away four goals to top tier opposition like Donegal did only leads to one thing - defeat.

All in all though, both teams will be relatively happy with today and happy with their league campaigns. Cork have a final against Dublin in a fortnight’s time to bridge the gap to their inevitable annual joust with Kerry on Munster final day while Donegal have now no distractions and eyes only for Tyrone.

This league has seen newcomers make their bows for Donegal; some fringe players have pushed their way into the manager’s thoughts while the stalwarts are all, by and large, in good knick and the team as a whole looks like it means business in Championship 2015. Bring it on.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Last Gasp Donegal Deny Mayo

Castlebar was the venue as Donegal finally ended their six year hoodoo of losing all their top tier away league matches and in the process booked a semi final spot in Croke Park next Sunday.

The general consensus heading into the game was that the job had been done last week, division one status had been preserved and a top four finish was irrelevant. A manager can’t tell his players not to win a match though, it is not in players’ nature to ease off, especially a bunch as committed and driven as these Donegal lads.

What he can do though is train them hard in the days leading up to a game and any subsequent positive result is a bonus. Rory Gallagher admitted afterwards that championship preparations had been stepped up during the week and some tough training sessions had been endured.

Yet still the players emptied their collective tanks yesterday and left everything they had on the MacHale Park turf, grounding out a draw in the process. Gallagher’s reaction as the umpire raised the white flag to signal a Donegal equaliser suggested he was more than happy to have chiselled out a leveller.

Rory will have been delighted with the guts and attitude of his players throughout; it was a fractious encounter between two sets of players who’ve crossed swords on big days at Headquarters and bad blood still lingers. Finding themselves in that type of environment, in that cauldron, his boys didn't back down. As the old adage goes, made famous by ex-England rugby player Will Greenwood, never a backward step.

Donegal were out of the traps quickly with two scores on the board inside a minute. Odhran MacNiallais got the first and he finished up with three points to his name in another mature performance. Martin McElhinney continues to get better and better every time he puts on a Donegal jersey and with so many men missing from the middle third he was left to man the engine room, an often thankless task against the Mayo giants Barry Moran and Seamus O’Shea. The home pairing were in exceptional form, particularly in the second half and only for the poor decision making by the forwards in front of them and their failure to capitalise on the platform created around the middle, Mayo would have been victorious.

It was similar to what happened in Tralee when David Moran and Anthony Maher dominated the midfield exchanges and is a bit of a worry for Gallagher and his backroom team. Mayo pushed up on Donegal kick outs, forcing them to go long. On a number of occasions in the second half, as Michael Boyle tried to utilise short restarts, Donegal defenders were penned into one corner of the ground and struggled to work their way out; it is something that other teams will take note of.

With the margins so small at the top level these days, any little facet of play that may result in an advantage for your team has to be looked at and worked upon. Mayo are falling behind in this regard with Donegal, Kerry and Dublin ahead of them right now in terms of tactical acumen and game plans.

There has been a lot of talk this week about the state of the game after last week’s horror show in Croker between Derry and The Dubs but any rule changes or sweeping alterations to the game won’t be happening any time soon so managers must look at the here and now. Whether they like what they see or what they face week to week is irrelevant because a coach’s job is to have his team prepared for whatever they might face.

Mayo appear to have learnt little from the defeats they’ve suffered over the past few years. Yesterday their primary plan was to rely on the individual speed of the likes of Jason Doherty or Lee Keegan to burst through the defensive line rather than have any particular plan. When they come up against the full championship force of Donegal or even a Kerry or a Dublin defensive system, they could be in trouble.

Aidan O’Shea was deployed in the full forward line for much of the game yet he didn’t receive a decent long ball all afternoon. This leads to him collecting the ball deep and trying to burrow his way through the massed defence; he ends up playing more like an inside centre in the Jamie Roberts mould.

This tactic is of course bread and butter to the McGee brothers and they enjoyed their afternoon coming up against an old adversary. While Aidan is the better known figure nationally, it is his brother Seamus who is the real star for his side.

Another star on show was Patrick McBrearty, who notched 1-3 to add to his eye-catching league tally. His wonderfully finished goal midway through the first half was an example of Donegal’s fluid passing with Frank McGlynn the instigator. The Glenfin man was involved several times in the move down the right wing and laid on the final pass for McBrearty to smash home. It was notable yesterday how many times Donegal players hand passed the ball to the man running off their shoulder without even looking. It’s instinctive; they know from having religiously practised such moves at training that there will be a green and gold jersey to collect possession from them when they need to offload the ball. Pele famously passed the ball to ‘no one’ in the 1970 World Cup Final for Brazil's fourth goal; nowadays Donegal at times don’t have to look who they are passing to - they just know he will be there.   

Conversely some of Mayo’s passing didn’t come from any coaching manual. On numerous occasions they attempted balls into the forward line using the outside of their boot which, while it may look pretty at times, is not the most effective way of delivering a ball. Ideally a forward wants a ball that isn’t spinning away from him, but rather being driven straight at him and hitting him on the chest; it is also the most difficult ball for a defender to try and get a hand to. The brothers McGee, along with Paddy McGrath, were managing to get their paws on most Mayo passes in the first half whereas ball played into McBrearty and Colm McFadden was hit direct and true and they were able to gather.

Where the outside of the foot ‘screw’ technique is working and becoming more important as a weapon to beat the blanket, is in long range shooting. In Omagh and Clones yesterday, there were a lot of examples of point taking from distance and Mayo sent over some fine long range efforts too. Teams are somewhat over reliant on this method though, when a simple point taking opportunity presents itself many forwards nowadays are strangely passing the buck.

Along with Donegal’s standout performer McGlynn, Karl Lacey was again very impressive in the half back line. Anthony Thompson gets more and more game time with each passing week and with an extra match now in the offing and the opportunity to get more minutes into the legs, we may see the best half back line in the land back together come Championship.

Despite the efforts of Lacey and his comrades, Donegal struggled to keep the hosts at bay in the final quarter. Moran’s midfield dominance gave his side scoring chances aplenty but the majority of these were wasted. Moran produced a similar display in the league game at the same venue two years ago but that day Mayo had enough in their locker to push for home in the closing stages.

Donegal hung in there and two brilliant points from Kilcar sharpshooter McBrearty kept them in the game. McBrearty has really stepped it up in this league series and it was great to see the team as a whole playing with confidence and authority despite being short their captain Michael Murphy.

With Murphy’s club mate Neil Gallagher also missing, Donegal can be pleased with securing a draw such was their lack of bulk and height around the middle third. At times, McFadden was contesting kick outs with Moran after his namesake Hugh was black carded and Christy Toye had been substituted.

The final act came via an unlikely source, Stephen Griffin taking his score brilliantly from a very tricky angle and with the breeze in his face. Griffin has flattered to deceive in the past at inter-county level but his talent has been seen plenty of times before at club level and in flashes with his county - hopefully he can get to the next level with yesterday doing his confidence the world of good.

Another man thrust, unexpectedly into the fray was Ciaran McGinley; with the team short on options around midfield, it was a tough situation to enter into for your competitive debut. He didn't shy away from the ball and took responsibility but found the tackling tough and was easily blocked down on one occasion when the room for the shot wasn’t really there. It might have seemed a bit harsh to be replaced again but it proved a masterstroke from Rory, with Griffin sending his team to Jones Road next Sunday.

The end result, coupled with the Kingdom’s draw in Healy Park, meant Donegal had qualified for a last four joust with Cork. Mayo wastefulness cost them in the end, having had many chances in the closing stages. They are still struggling to find top class forwards and until they do they will fall short in major competitions. Cillian O’Connor remains their main marksman but he was unavailable for this clash; his brother Diarmaid got plenty of the ball but did little with it. Danny Kirby at full forward is a newcomer this year but doesn't look like an inter county footballer and has a long way to go. 

Donegal will likely use the extra game they now face as a chance to work on a few ideas ahead of Tyrone in the championship and the likes of Thompson, Griffin and McGinley may see more action. That would leave five weeks before that May 17th date in Ballybofey; a potential league final, most likely against Dublin, would leave only three weeks of a lead in to that pivotal tie and that might be cutting it a bit tight. If Rory was offered the choice of a league final appearance or a win over Tyrone, the latter would be the call.